Introduction: the Documents

Physical description

The names of the 25,000 individuals who swore before the justices in Devon are listed on 59 separate oath ‘rolls’. Each roll consists of one or more membranes, with multiple membranes sewn together from head to foot (Chancery style). The longest individual roll is that for 19-25 December and covers 8 membranes at a length of some 5 metres 74 centimetres. These comprise the main series for 1723 and are classified separately amongst oath rolls for the county of Devon. The two rolls for the city of Exeter are in a slightly different form. The first contains 228 names, consisting of 4 membranes and the second is subscribed by 1,367 individuals across 8 membranes. Whilst the Exeter rolls each contains a single header for the Midsummer and Michaelmas Quarter Sessions, the Quarter Sessions order books for the city demonstrate the oath-taking was actually administered at a series of adjourned sessions as was the case in Devon. The pre-1723 oath rolls are similar to those for 1723, except that they generally consist of a series of separate membranes tied together at the top (Exchequer style). The physical condition of the 1723 rolls for Devon is generally good, with occasional sections rendered illegible through wear. The pre-1723 rolls are in a less satisfactory state, but are mostly adequate for the purposes of transcription. The 1723 Exeter rolls are in excellent condition.

The Text

The rolls are mostly laid out according to the same pattern. They begin by providing the full text of the three oaths as prescribed by the Acts of Parliament discussed above (see Appendix 2). This is followed by a short Latin header stating the location of the adjourned Quarter Sessions, the date held and the names of the justices of the peace administering the oath (see Appendix 3). This is then followed by the names of those who swore the oaths on that occasion. These are laid out as illustrated in Figure 3. Each membrane is normally divided into two columns, consisting of the names of those who swore and their parish of residence, followed by their signature or mark. In some cases an additional description of status is provided. In the case of men this can be ‘gent[leman]’, ‘esq[uire]’ or ‘clerk’98, whilst for women descriptions are limited to marital status. From this information it is clear that the women who took the oaths included spinsters, widows and married women. In the case of married women their husbands had also usually taken the oaths, so there is no evidence of women swearing as a proxy for their husbands. Most rolls contain entries for more than one location and date. In these cases, each new adjournment is introduced with a Latin header providing the date, location and names of the justices of the peace. Names are generally entered on both sides of the manuscripts in the Devon series, although just one side for the Exeter rolls. The lists of names on the rolls are often in more than one hand (see Figure 4), and there is no internal evidence to enable the scribes to be identified. The responsibility for drawing up indictments, maintaining court business and keeping records fell to the clerk of the peace. The clerk was often a member of the local gentry and treated his office as a sinecure, appointing a deputy to do the work. Both clerks and their deputies were normally attorneys with their own private practice.99 Thus the responsibility for drawing up the oath rolls and entering the lists of names presumably fell upon the Deputy Clerk of the Peace or paid scribes.100

Methodological Issues

As can be seen in Figure 3 and Figure 4 the names are entered on the oath rolls in no particular order. A frequent labour saving technique employed by the clerks was to group together the names of individuals from a particular parish within a curled braked with the designation ‘of the same’ written alongside, indicating the same place of residence as a preceding entry (as in Figure 3). In most cases, for example the group from Woolfardisworthy in Figure 3, the place of residence inferred is clear. However, some of the manuscripts contain extensive crossings out leaving some doubt as to the intended place of residence. In Figure 5 the majority of names have been crossed through. As a result the place of residence of Thomas Drew, Robert West and Grace Codner are unclear. It seems likely that the uncrossed entries were originally grouped under the entry for John Neck of Kingskerswell, and so it can probably be assumed that Drew, West and Codner were from the same parish. In such cases, every effort has been made to determine the most likely place of residence. Where doubts remain, this has been indicated in the transcripts.

A further feature of the oath rolls is that, unlike other comparable documents such as the 1696 Association Oath Rolls, each name is entered twice. The first entry has been made by the clerk, with the second consisting of either the signature of the individual sworn in their own hand, or a repetition of the name in the hand of the clerk accompanied by a mark. In either case, there is often some variation in spelling between the first and second version of a name. Where this occurs the transcripts provide all variant spellings of surnames. Quite what can be inferred from the oath rolls regarding literacy rates in early eighteenth century Devon is discussed below. Here, it is worth noting that a ‘signature’ could vary from a clear rendering of an individual’s name suggesting a high degree of scribal competency to a poorly formed and barely legible scrawl indicating a very poor writing ability. Some indication of this variety of literacy levels can be seen in Figure 6, where Susanna Langford and Jacob Doble have signed clearly in a hand that suggests a relatively high level of competency. In contrast Robert Cotton appears to have been a less well practiced scribe, producing a fairly basic rendering of his name.

There is also some variety in the nature of the marks made beside the names of those who did not provide a signature. Figure 7 provides some indication of this variation. Some of those unable to sign their names, such as Bernard Crocker and Phillipa Harry simply marked with a cross or other fairly basic mark. Others, notably Thomas Taylor, had learnt to write their initials as a mark. A further variation becomes increasingly common in the oath rolls dating from mid-September 1723 onwards. In a large number of cases the various marks exemplified in Figure 7 have been replaced by clearly written initials that may not have been the work of the individual concerned. The initials entered on the manuscript illustrated in Figure 8 are far from the marks of illiterate men and women. In some cases the initial appears to be in a similar hand to that of the clerk, suggesting that it was them and not the individual sworn who made the mark. However, the evidence is far from conclusive and so the transcripts have treated anything other than an obvious signature as a ‘mark’, transcribing initial letters where appropriate.

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  1. ‘Clerk’ refers to a member of the clergy. [back]
  2. Lilian J. Redstone and Francis W. Steer (eds), Local Records: their nature and care (London, 1953), 125-129; Lionel K.J. Glassey, Politics and the Appointment of Justices of the Peace 1675-1720 (Oxford, 1979), 28-29. [back]
  3. The Clerk of the Peace for Devon in 1723 was William Martyn the elder. His Deputy was William Martyn junior, presumably his son: Sir Edgar Stephens (comp.), The Clerks of the Counties 1360-1960 (1961), 77, 79. [back]